Dirt cheap: Sometimes a good puddle is all a kid wants

John Fabel

John Fabel

By MARY KRAUS Gazette Contributing Writer

Published in print: Saturday, July 6, 2013

There has been a fair amount of discussion in recent years about children being disconnected from the “real world”: the outdoors, trees, fresh air, rocks, bugs, soil. Our cultural norms seem to involve keeping children inside, plugged into a TV or playing with some complex manufactured toy that defines the game for them. It’s an expectation that each child should own innumerable toys, games and electronic devices, at significant financial and environmental expense. Children are suffering from a lack of time and space to run free, exploring the wide world outside, using their imaginations to turn twigs and pebbles into fairy houses, feeling the roughness of bark and the warmth of the sun under bare feet as they climb trees and clamber over boulders. As a mother of a young child, I’ve had ample opportunities to see how this connection to the real world can nurture children and bring them delight, in a profound way that no manufactured gadget can match. One experience in particular has stuck with me as a potent cultural metaphor.

A few years back, my daughter was at a best friend’s birthday party. When it came time to open presents, I just cringed at the endless sequence of plastic junk. Call me a party pooper if you like, but all my worst thoughts about our consumer society began streaming through my mind. They ran something like this:

Of course, I managed to keep all these musings to myself. Meanwhile, the birthday boy’s mom, who I knew shared my frustration around the general excess of stuff, patiently endured the unwrapping of present after present that would clutter her house.

Mud puddles turned out to be a big hit at a birthday party several years ago attended by Piper Kraus-Fabel, left, of Amherst, and River Rodrigues, of Montague. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMY HOWLAND

Mud puddles turned out to be a big hit at a birthday party several years ago attended by Piper Kraus-Fabel, left, of Amherst, and River Rodrigues, of Montague. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMY HOWLAND

After the gifts were opened and cake consumed, my daughter and her friend were liberated to go outside and play. It had rained the day before, and there were a couple of puddles in the dirt driveway. The kids immediately recognized the opportunity, and started to run through the puddles. It became a repetitive and joyful rhythm, as they ran through one puddle and then the other, then turned around and ran back in the opposite direction, through puddle, over dry ground, then through puddle again.

SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH! — step, step — SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH!

Turn around.

SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH! — step, step — SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH!

Again — and again and again. Back and forth, back and forth, with the brightest smiles and exuberance, laughing in delight.

Then they got their hands in the puddles. Knelt in the puddles. Leaned over and dipped their hair in the puddles. Sat down in the puddles with all their clothes on. Reveled in the water and mud, until they were two completely drenched , mud-covered kids.

As far as I could tell, this was the real hit of the party. We can spend all the money we want buying piles of plastic toys for a child, but when it comes down to it, what do kids really want? Dirt!

Mary Kraus is a partner in Kraus-Fitch Architects Inc., of Amherst, and has specialized in designing non-toxic and energy-efficient structures for many years.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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